Update 2/6/19: American Express front line representatives are now stating they are going through the statements of those with inquiries regarding this issue and manually adding those merchants so they code correctly. That seems unnecessary considering most of the time it correctly shows up as a restaurant but it’s still not earning 4x. Still it’s good to see they are at least attempting to fix the issues for some people.
Below is a guest post from my friend Dawnzerly from ShareTraveler.com, a website dedicated to saving money on travel using home exchange and other sharing economy networks.
One of the big attractions to the new Amex Gold card is the ability to earn 4X Membership Rewards (MR) points per dollar on restaurant spend, one of the best earning rates on restaurant spend available. Unfortunately, a lot of people are finding themselves only earning the generic 1X points, even when using the card at full-fledged restaurants. The reasons are unclear, and getting the problem corrected can be time consuming and frustrating.
On my November statement there were 12 charges at restaurants, of which 5 did not earn the 4X multiplier. It’s easy to check if you earned the bonus: in your online Amex account, select the Statements & Activity tab and choose any closed statement; the charges that get the bonus show a little blue diamond with 4X in it next to the charge.
I called Amex to ask for help with this. Over the course of several phone calls and many transfers to new people/departments I learned a few things. First, many Amex employees don’t know about this problem. Second, they need to open a case for the MR team to investigate, and when they do this you should hear back within the week (if you don’t hear back, no case was actually opened). Third, once investigation is complete, you won’t necessarily win.
From the charges I’ve followed up on, one place was determined not to be a restaurant at all. They gave me courtesy points for that place, but they won’t pay 4X on it in the future. The other restaurants they investigated on my bill were said to have been fixed in the Amex system; those will hopefully code properly in the future.
Readers note in the comments that the issue also affects the signup bonus offer to get 20% back at restaurants – it’ll only work on what they consider restaurants. And people have had similar issues in the past with other restaurant bonuses from Amex as well. Other banks like Chase use a broader catch-all category which includes everything, but Amex is more limiting, and results in many legitimate restaurant purchases being disqualified by their system.
What Works and What Does Not
This earnings issue affects all kinds of dining establishments. Of my nine failed restaurants from my November and December statements: three were ordinary restaurants (sit down, menus, etc.); one was a cafe (coffee and pastries only); four were breweries with minimal food on offer; one was a brewery with full sit-down restaurant on premises (yes, I go to a lot of breweries!). You might be thinking that a good rule of thumb is that breweries don’t work, but there were several breweries that did code for me at 4X, so there’s no consistent pattern there.
Digging into the details a bit more, Amex displays the Category of purchase at two levels in your online statement. For instance, many of my restaurants show as: Restaurant – Restaurant. Others show as Restaurant – Bar & Cafe. Two, oddly, show as Merchandise & Supplies – Groceries (both of these are bars at breweries).
Even some of those which showed Restaurant – Restaurant did not always get the bonus points. The ones in the Bar & Cafe subgroup more often did not get 4X, yet sometimes they did earn 4X automatically. The ones coded as Merchandise & Supplies never earned 4X (and they did not code at 4X for groceries either, despite showing the exact same way as the grocery category).
The category you see in your Amex login is not the category Amex uses to award bonus points. I was told by several different Amex reps that the restaurants missing the 4X bonus have to be manually recoded to count as restaurants. This is consistent with what other folks have been told. This means that when I call to initiate an investigation they first have to decide that my charge was really at a restaurant, then they have to put in a request to recode it.
So if you have a specific restaurant which isn’t coding properly at 4X, you can get them to update their system so that it should automatically earn 4X in the future. Useful to know.
Some people have speculated that restaurants using Square or Toast readers for payments may be the problem. That’s definitely possible – this would be the case with many of the indy bars and restaurants I frequent. You can see this online: Toast transactions will show up on your Amex statement as “TST*” preceding the restaurant name.
And Square shows under the detail of the transaction under “Additional information.” If the payment processor is the problem, you could ask about payment systems before providing your credit card to pay.
This may, however, be a case where correlation is not causation. Of my 9 charges that didn’t earn 4X, two were with Toast, 4 were with Square, and 3 were neither of these. Smaller indy establishments are more likely to use these payment processors, and they are more likely to not code as 4X by Amex. That doesn’t necessarily mean the payment processing system is causing the failure to code as a restaurant.
Overall, my experience suggests that cafes, bars, and breweries are a high risk for not automatically counting. Restaurants have a better chance. You can also verify with each restaurant to ensure they aren’t using Square or Toast. Doing so can greatly increase your odds of getting 4X.
I feel reasonably safe using my Amex Gold at chain restaurants and at indy restaurants that have been around for a long time. I won’t use it at anything remotely considered a bar, even if they have a huge restaurant (i.e. a brewery and restaurant), nor will I use it at any cafes. The Citi Prestige will probably be my go-to backup, but first I need data points on whether it codes cafes and bars as restaurants.
Even with this cautious use of my Amex Gold I’m not entirely safe for getting the 4X points on all restaurants. I may still call in to dispute these missing rewards, but at some point it’s a bad use of my time and I will just give up on the MR bonus for restaurants.
Over the course of disputing my restaurant bonus on two statements, including follow up calls, I probably put in 3 hours on the phone. Much of that time was quite frustrating, with reps who had no idea what was going on and who were trying to make up rules about why I shouldn’t get the bonus points. In the end, I was awarded courtesy points for all that I was missing and more. So I came out ahead (actually quite a lot ahead due to the generosity of the last manager I spoke to), but I’ve stopped using my Amex Gold at a lot of places.
Bottom line: check your statements and dispute any missing 4X on restaurants. The more people who complain about this, the more likely they are to try to find a broader solution to the coding problem.